The Trump administration took a decidedly confrontational approach to China on national security issues. Among other moves, it forged closer ties to Taiwan, blacklisted Chinese telecommunications giants from access to critical computer chips, and revved up the “China Initiative,” a controversial Justice Department-led crackdown on the theft of trade secrets and export violations that often targeted Chinese researchers.
As part of these broad anti-China efforts, Trump-era officials focused on the supposed threat posed by some Chinese students living in the U.S., particularly those with alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army. In 2020, the administration revoked the visas of over 1,000 Chinese students and researchers, citing their links to China’s military.
But the Trump administration’s preoccupation with Chinese researchers went beyond those with military links. Some administration officials, as well as career U.S. intelligence personnel, believed that a much larger group of U.S.-based Chinese students were also acting as “non-traditional collectors” for Beijing–in essence, performing various types of intelligence-gathering, mostly related to intellectual property.
Factions within the administration battled over how punitive an approach to take toward Chinese students, with hardliners reportedly pushing for a total ban on Chinese student visas. Some of these Trump-era proposals regarding Chinese students were ultimately instituted. Others, like the blanket ban, were not.
In one previously unreported case, around 2019, proponents of a big-data program at the Department of Homeland Security sought to create digital dossiers of every Chinese exchange student in the United States. But officials scrapped the initiative over fears of accusations of racial profiling and worries over a lack of legal cover for the program, according to three current and former U.S. officials and individuals briefed on the initiative.
Advocates of the program, dubbed “Steady Stare” by DHS officials, pitched it to members of Congress, National Security Council staff, and the U.S. intelligence community. At least one senior official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence participated in discussions surrounding the initiative, according to an individual briefed on the proposed big data program -- a good indicator of how seriously at least some in the administration were taking the initiative.
DHS officials wanted to build a deck of “baseball cards on all the [Chinese] students that were in the U.S., trying to understand relative risk and threat levels,” this person said. “They were trying to prove the model, because they were going to need a massive amount of resources to do the most rudimentary baseball cards on the [more than] 300,000 Chinese students” studying in the U.S. every year. (The Department of Homeland Security did not return a request for comment.)
But the program’s mastermind at DHS, which has oversight authorities related to visa violations, “just wanted to run it like J. Edgar Hoover would run it,” this source recalled. “And I was just like, ‘Dude, you’re not going to get away with this. This is one Washington Post story away from going bye-bye.’”
In the eyes of the program’s backers, however, Steady Stare helped fill a critical gap in national security: tracking Chinese students who were potentially “breaking the spirit” of their visas by sharing their U.S.-based research work with interested parties in China, even though they were not necessarily violating any U.S. laws, says a current national security official. (Academic research, even in areas that aren’t national-security related, often has valuable commercial applications, and isn’t always subject to laws governing intellectual property.) Steady Stare was designed to spot patterns that could help DHS officials pinpoint potential future visa violations, according to the current official. It was about “develop[ing] a risk matrix” for foreign students–Chinese and as well as others–this official said.
The program's existence–if not the details about what it actually entailed–weren’t all that closely held. In a 2019 Senate Finance Committee hearing, a senior DHS official, Louis A. Rodi III, described Steady Stare as “a proactive and holistic agency effort to target and prevent the potential illicit procurement and theft of technology and intellectual property by foreign students, researchers, and professors.” Steady Stare grew out of a foreign student monitoring program at DHS called “Domestic Mantis,” which had been in operation since 2016, Rodi said. And the initiative had recently expanded to an all-DHS effort focused on foreign academics and researchers known as the “Stellar Sunrise Project,” according to Rodi.
Out of the over 300,000 Chinese students in the United States, Steady Stare sought to identify and track a much smaller number that Trump officials believed to be engaging in improper behaviors. One data point officials considered suspicious: Chinese graduate students who entered the U.S. on an educational visa to study English or other humanities subjects, but soon switched to degree programs in robotics or other technology-related fields, a former U.S. official recalled. DHS’s Domestic Mantis program was specifically geared toward better tracking “those nonimmigrant students who entered the United States to study a nonsensitive field of study, and who subsequently changed their field of study to a sensitive area,” according to a 2016 Homeland Security report.
Tracking Chinese students after they enter the country can be difficult, current and former officials said. It isn’t always clear that students are actually enrolled in the programs they have cited in their visa forms. Universities, fearing privacy violations and the specter of McCarthyism, are often loath to share information they possess on students with the FBI or other U.S. government agencies, these officials added.
As part of the initiative, DHS officials associated with Steady Stare lobbied Congress for more power for the agency to keep tabs on Chinese students. “I said, [DHS is] going to need new authorities...if we’re going to take a bite out of this problem,” the current national-security official recalled. “Otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult to do more than what the FBI is already doing, because no one’s breaking the law.”
But although the congressional officials, national-security staffers, and intelligence personnel were “unanimously positive” about the program during briefings by DHS staff, Steady Stare received “passive-aggressive resistance” after the fact, the current U.S. official recalled. Its advocates failed to get the support they needed to advance the initiative beyond its pilot phase. “Everyone was in full agreement and wanted to do pretty much nothing,” this current official said.
By the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative was moribund, according to the source briefed on the program.
More recently, the Biden administration has also pursued a sharp-elbowed approach to Beijing. It has kept in place the Trump-era visa ban on Chinese students with alleged ties to the Chinese military. Earlier this month, the president issued far-reaching restrictions -- broader than those instituted by the Trump administration -- on the exportation of computer chips to China.
As for Steady Stare, the individual briefed on the program believed it was doomed from its inception. “The thing is, if you don’t have probable cause, on what basis are you collecting the information? … Not that it’s criminal, but if you don’t have a reason to start the baseball card, then it just looks like Total Information Awareness,” the source said, referring to the George W. Bush-era big data tracking program that civil liberties advocates decried as dystopian.
The program was “logistically impossible,” this person said, because it operated from a premise “that every student is a potential spy and then [would have investigators] work backwards to prove a negative.”
“It’s the least surgical way of dealing with the issue,” the source said.
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